High school foreign language classes should be reformed to better prepare students for the real world

Students in foreign language classes spend their time learning from a textbook instead of practicing speaking the language.

Open Culture

Students in foreign language classes spend their time learning from a textbook instead of practicing speaking the language.

Ananya Pinnamaneni, Features Editor

My friends and I were waiting for our DoorDash order to be delivered, so we decided to call the delivery person to ask where they were. When they answered, we were surprised to hear them start talking in Spanish. All of us looked at each other, confused and unsure of how to respond. We had all been taking Spanish for at least three to four years in school, but none of us felt confident enough in our Spanish speaking skills to actually communicate with a native Spanish speaker.

Taking two years of foreign language is a requirement in California for students to graduate from high school, and many colleges require more than this from students that are admitted. However, numerous students feel like these classes aren’t actually benefiting them since they don’t feel like they can fluently speak the language they’ve been learning for multiple years. 

Shikha Kathrani, a senior who took Spanish for two years in middle school and two years in high school, commented, “If I go to Spain or Colombia or places where Spanish is the main language, I don’t think I would be able to fluently speak [Spanish] and communicate with the population.”

A key issue with the way these classes are taught in high school is that a lot of the assignments and tests involve written work rather than speaking. In the real-world setting, people need to know how to speak the language on the spot, not just how to write it.

In the real-world setting, people need to know how to speak the language on the spot, not just how to write it.

Sarah Colard, a French teacher at Dougherty Valley, explained how she is addressing this issue: “I try to force [my students] to talk a lot in class. [They] have to talk at least twice in every period.”

But, even when teachers make students speak the language in class, they usually just make them read answers from the homework or other assignments out loud. The problem is that this isn’t helping students learn how to speak the language. The work is already done and written down, so they just have to read it. Many students struggle with thinking of the right vocabulary words, conjugating verbs and forming sentences on the spot, so they need practice with this in order to improve.

“I remember when I was in Spanish, we used to get tables filled with conjugations. But when you’re actually speaking Spanish, you’ll need to know how to make [full] sentences, not just how to conjugate a verb,” Kathrani explained.

Teachers often believe teaching students more content will help them express their thoughts more effectively in the foreign language since they have more breadth of knowledge to draw from. However, pushing students to learn more concepts in a short period of time can actually backfire.

“Sometimes the class [can] feel overwhelming because you’re focused on memorization,” Kathrani commented.

When they’re overwhelmed by all the information they’re being provided with, students are unsure of which information they actually need to use when they’re in a real-world situation that involves speaking the language.

In order to help combat this issue, students should have more speaking practice after learning each new concept, even if that means teaching less topics overall. 

“For me, it’s more important than [teaching] all the grammar for students to be able to communicate,” Colard corroborated.

However, this lack of speaking practice can’t be blamed entirely upon teachers or the curriculum. This issue also stems from students’ fear of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves when speaking a foreign language in front of their peers.

Destiny Pinto, a student who took Spanish for five years up to the Honors level, explained, “A lot of students [have] hesitation to speak [the] language themselves because of how uncomfortable and difficult it can be.”

The solution to this issue is no different from the main reform being suggested. Students’ confidence in their own speaking abilities can only be improved through practice. Although students would be opposed to it at first, forcing them to speak by giving them graded speaking assignments would be the best way to get them to overcome this barrier of hesitation.

“To actually learn how to speak the language, I think you have to practice speaking it, [even though] students would probably hate it,” Pinto said.

Another issue arises from the mindset of students as well – many of them don’t actually make an effort to properly learn the language since they don’t have a genuine interest in the class.

“There [are] less people that I’ve seen [who] are genuinely interested in learning Spanish [compared to] the people who are just taking it because of the coursework requirements,” Kathrani commented.

One way to solve this issue would be by exposing students to the culture of the language they’re learning more in order to pique their interest in the subject.

“I think it would be beneficial if we were able to teach students more about the culture by showing them movies, games, and music to engage them more,” Colard expressed.

Kathrani provides an example of how witnessing cultural experiences in her Spanish class made her and her peers more interested in learning the language.

“Mr. MacMillan [a Spanish teacher at DVHS] used to play a series where this man used to go to several Spanish speaking countries and have an adventure there. He recorded [various aspects of] the culture. I definitely enjoyed [watching] it, and I know a lot of my peers enjoyed learning about the culture [as well],” she said.

“For me personally, my interest in the culture contributed to my interest in the language [as a whole],” Pinto reinforced.

Ensuring that students truly want to learn the language rather than just passing the class is crucial. Teachers can do their best in their role, but the desire to learn has to come from the students themselves.

Reforms must be made to foreign language classes to prevent students from spending years taking these classes in vain, without actually learning the language well enough to use it in the real world.